by Kate Heyhoe
"What exactly is Minnesota cuisine?" asked my seatmates as we winged our way to Minnesota's Twin Cities. The question surprised me, coming from Minneapolis residents, but as our conversation progressed, I realized the couple's concept of fine cooking was pure steak-and-potatoes.
Not that the Midwest doesn't raise excellent livestock. Carnivores can consider a meal of Midwestern cattle, pork or lamb to be a little slice—or better yet, a thick slab—of heaven.
Yet Minnesota and its brethren states of the "northern heartland" (Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, and the Dakotas) don't stop with red meat. If you've never visited the area, or, if you have but are stuck in a carnivorous rut, you might not realize the abundant cornucopia of regional foods. For example, compared with other states, the production of Minnesota's agricultural products ranks as follows:
#1: Green peas and sugar beets
#2: Sweet corn, oats, wild rice and turkeys
#3: Hogs, spring wheat, flaxseed, and soybeans
#5: Butter, milk, ice cream, honey, rye, sunflowers
#6: Dried beans, barley
Additionally, the abundant lakes, streams and woods provide ample round-ups of walleye pike, wild game and venison. So, what does one do with such a bountiful larder?
Well, if you're a chef that's born, fed wed, and bred in the area, and you have a particular passion for fresh, seasonal foods, you and your buddies open a restaurant that becomes wildly successful: the Dakota. You use only regional products, indigenous to the area, and seek out the best sources for organic produce and handmade cheeses. and showing great respect for natural flavors, you spin your ingredients into a finely woven web of elegant simplicity and pure tastes, with surprising little twists that transform familiarly comfortable dishes into innovative dining.
The chef in question, Ken Goff, is as personable and low-key as his cooking. and for a jazz aficionado like me, the fact that he plates up his specialties in one of the nation's leading jazz clubs is too awesome to be true.
The Dakota, housed in one of the original buildings of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and across the way from Minneapolis in St. Paul, is, in one word: comfortable. It's not snobbish or intimidating, although it would have every right to be. You can either dine in the bar and watch live jazz perfomances, or you can eat in the dining room—which is not fully separated from the stage. So in the dining room, while you can't see the performers, you can enjoy their music (and still have conversation); at some tables, you can even observe the audiences, which adds to the open atmosphere.
In most clubs that combine food and jazz, one of the two elements usually suffers. You either get good jazz and mediocre food, or great food and limp jazz. But the Dakota does both equally well, setting standards that other jazz club/restaurants would do well to imitate. Not surprisingly, it attracts jazz icons—McCoy Tyner, Stanley Turrentine, Max Roach—as well as younger, cutting-edge performers like Harry Connick, Jr., Wynton Marsalis, and Terence Watson, who packed the room the night I visited and who composes for Spike Lee's films.
But back to the food. "What exactly is Minnesota cuisine?" Ken Goff's menu at the Dakota goes beyond answering this question, creating what I call "modern Minnesota cuisine." Walleye Pike, breaded and fried, is a standard regional dish—but Goff adds ground wild rice to the coating. Asians, relocated after the war, introduced wontons to Minnesotans, but Goff's version—stuffed with juniper-ginger-spiced duck and cabbage, served with a fresh rhubarb sauce—melds the best of both cultures. and the chef's awesome Minnesota Brie and Apple Soup has become the restaurant's signature dish.
Next time you're in the Twin Cities, treat yourself to a sample of "Upper Midwest Regional Cuisine," as Chef Goff calls it, at the Dakota, in St. Paul's historic Bandana Square (1021 E. Bandana Blvd, St. Paul, MN 55108; 651/642-1442).
Fortunately, even if you can't go there live, Chef Goff generously shared his recipes with our readers—your only challenge will be finding the fresh, quality ingredients to replicate the true Minnesota taste. But if you succeed, the effort will be well worth it.
Kate's Global Kitchen for June, 2001:06/02/01 One Husky Little Tomato: Mexico's Tomatillo Unwrapped
Coming in July-August: The Big Grilling Guide & The Haiku of Food Contest
Copyright © 2001, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created June 2001
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